Houston, We Have a Problem with Jesus' Name

Dr. Jerry Newcombe | Truth in Action Ministries | Friday, July 8, 2011

Houston, We Have a Problem with Jesus' Name

Political correctness in modern America continues to run amuck.

The latest front is at the Veterans Administration’s Houston National Cemetery. Can someone pray in the name of Jesus at a public event?

Apparently not. According to reports, the director of that facility, Arleen Ocasio, insists on seeing written copies of prayers in advance, so she can approve or disapprove them.

So, for example, a local Nazarene pastor, Rev. Scott Rainey, was asked to say a prayer at a Memorial Day service there. Director Ocasio told him to send in-writing what he was going to say. He complied.

She responded that Rainey's prayer was “well written,” but he couldn’t say it (or pray it) as is—because it was not “all inclusive” as a prayer. Translation: Since he wanted to end his prayer (as he is wont to do) in the name of Jesus Christ, he could not pray—at least not that way.

Keith Ethridge, director of the VA National Chaplain Center, says in an official statement: “Prayer is a very personal and sacred moment. To honor Veterans as they are laid to rest, VA Chaplains always pray and preside over religious services according to the Veteran’s faith tradition and the family wishes.”

Praying in the name of Jesus is not “inclusive” enough. (Note: it’s always Jesus that is offensive, supposedly.)

Rainey respectfully sought permission from the VA to override the Houston director’s decision. They said no.

So enters, on Rainey's behalf, the Liberty Institute, a legal organization based in the greater Dallas area, fighting for religious freedom. Liberty Institute filed suit and won a last minute injunction. The judge ruled that even prayer is free speech, has first amendment protection, and should not be censored. Rev. Rainey was able to pray in the name of Jesus after all.

Liberty Institute has now filed suit on behalf of three local veterans groups against the cemetery for similar anti-religious discrimination. The three groups are the Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4, The American Legion Post 586, and the National Memorial Ladies. Scott Rainey is also a part of the lawsuit so that his future potential prayers won’t be subjected to future potential censorship.

The lawsuit claims, “Defendants are engaging in unlawful religious viewpoint discrimination against Plaintiffs by… banning certain religious words such as ‘God’ and ‘Jesus,’ censoring the content of prayer, and banning religious speech and expression from burial rituals when prior approval for such religious expression is not sought.”

I called the Houston office and spoke with cemetery representative Melody Hardwick. She referred any questions related to the litigation to the US Attorney’s office. She also sent me a fax from the national VA’s office (cited above) on their policy, which noted that the VA has a thousand chaplains throughout the country.

Meanwhile, she denied that viewpoint discrimination takes place at the Houston facility, citing the wishes of the deceased's family. She said her own father was buried there on November 6, 2010 (at a time when Director Ocasio was in charge of the cemetery), and it was a “lovely, Christian service.”

One of the complaints against the Houston National Cemetery is that the chapel was apparently shut down and changed into essentially a storage facility. Hardwick said that the graveyard is being expanded, and as construction was going on, the chapel was temporarily shut down as a chapel. But that was not and is not a permanent move, she said.

Jeff Mateer, general counsel of Liberty Institute, says that’s not true. He told me the chapel was closed prior to any construction.

Meanwhile, one man who spoke on behalf of Liberty Institute’s lawsuit against the cemetery and its director is 66-year-old Vietnam veteran, Nobleton Jones, Honor Guard Junior Vice Command. He said, "On March 15, Director Ocasio told me that I couldn’t say 'May God grant you grace, mercy and peace' to grieving families.”

How did he react to the news? “That makes me feel smaller, even after I spent my time in the military, fighting so that people should be able to say that… I did all this for my country and you are going to tell me what I can and can’t say?”

As a student of American history, I find it fascinating that the first thing George Washington did as Commander-in-Chief, when he received the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776 (mail was slow back then), was to systematically make sure that chaplains serve throughout the regiments (there were chaplains before him, but he systematized their placement more thoroughly and made sure they were paid a decent wage).

Speaking of himself in the third person, Washington said once about his army, “The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier, defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.”

I have no doubt where the father of our country would stand on this issue.

Just this week, on the 4th of July, there were about 1000 (according to the Associated Press) peaceful protesters at the cemetery. One person who attended was the U. S. Congressman Ted Poe, representing that area. He said, "Really, this cemetery doesn't belong to the VA…. It belongs to those buried here and their families."

The rally was organized by the Houston Area Pastors' Council. The rally cry was for religious freedom and for Ocasio to step down.

Our founders gave us freedom of religion. But some today seem to be trying to impose freedom from religion.

Jerry Newcombe is the senior producer and host of Truth That Transforms with Dr. D. James Kennedy. He has also written or co-written 21 books, including The Book That Made America: How the Bible Formed Our Nation. Jerry co-wrote (with Dr. Peter Lillback) the bestselling, George Washington's Sacred Fire.

Publication date: July 8, 2011